Takes One to Know One?

In a late entry for most absurd human rights story of 2011, the Arab League has appointed Sudanese General Mohammad Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi to head their observer mission to Syria. As David Kenner points out in an article titled “The World’s Worst Human Rights Observer,” Dabi is implicated in the Bashir regime’s organization of atrocity-committing janjaweed militias in Darfur, making him rather an unconventional choice for a human rights observer mission.

An anonymous reader suggests that Dabi’s background as an (alleged) participant in genocide mean he’s overqualified to monitor mere crimes against humanity. But I’m kind of thinking the Arab League might be onto something. I mean, it’s like home alarm system companies using ex-burglars as “security consultants,” right? Who better to catch a war criminal?

Ethnic Cleansing? Talk to the Hand: Andy Samberg and Arcade Fire Give the UN a Helpful Summary of World History

Speaking of things to show our undergrads, the indubitable Michael Clemens sent me the following, which I think basically sums up my position on world history too:

“The Holocaust? What was that?”
“Darfur? Talk to the hand.”

(Update: Kate reminds me that Ryan Briggs also sent us that link via Twitter, so h/t to him too.)

WTF Friday, 11/12/10

The Enough homepage asks us today, “If you could prevent another Darfur, what would you do?” I’m gonna go ahead and say I’d and prevent it. Yea. Definitely prevent it.

Nicholas Sarkozy ahead of his meeting with Hu Jintao: “It’s not by reproaching people for things that you make progress.” Somehow both frustratingly vague and painfully transparent. Really what I look for in a quote. Nicely done.

I guess I normally focus on stuff outside of the U.S., but this seemed appropriate to highlight. “These girls are the lucky ones?” Did they win a high school diploma in a game of Roulette? Also nice to see some homegrown disaster porn.

Things I Liked: Rob Crilly’s ‘Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War’

I’m always a little bit nervous when I get a review copy of a book in the mail. I don’t give undeserved praise, but I feel uncomfortable publicly criticizing someone’s work when they’ve gone to the trouble of seeking out my opinion and sending me a copy to read. It seems rude, like complaining about a birthday gift. Rob Crilly, author of the new book Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War, clearly saw me coming a mile away -he not only sent me the book, but he let me know that he was paying for the review copy and shipping costs out of his own pocket. No publishers’ PR account was covering this. I was nervous. If I read the book and hated it, how could I say that in a review without feeling like a jerk?

I am pleased to report that Crilly has thoughtfully spared my tender feelings by writing a good book. Saving Darfur knows what it’s doing, and does it very well. Namely, it takes the reader along for the ride as Crilly reports on Darfur, and explains a Crilly’s-eye view of the conflict along the way.

Sticking to Crilly’s point of view protects the book from being over-ambitious, and allows it to execute its premise very well. Saving Darfur doesn’t attempt to become a history book or political treatise, to good result. Readers who are already familiar with the conflict will enjoy getting Crilly’s perspective, and learning the nitty-gritty details of his daily struggles as a journalist. Those who aren’t will find the book an enjoyable and useful introduction, a way to meet key players in a context that makes sense. Also, the prose is good.


(The book doesn’t have an American publisher yet, but I hope it gets one soon. The book isn’t available in the U.S. until September, but can be pre-ordered here. Until then, you can order it from Amazon.co.uk.)

In Which Andrew Heavens Makes the Darfur/Monty Python Joke We’ve All Been Thinking

Maybe I’m just feeling exuberant because it’s finally sunny and warm in New York, but Andrew Heavens’ latest piece on Darfur’s rebel movements for the Reuters Africa News Blog is pretty much my favorite thing anyone has written on the subject, ever. What can I say? I do love a well-executed Monty Python reference:

“There is a classic scene in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian where the hero sets off in search of a secret band of insurgents. “Are you the Judean People’s Front,” he asks a group of malcontents. “The Judean People’s Front!” they reply in disgust. “We’re the People’s Front of Judea … The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front … And the Judean Popular People’s Front. Splitters!”
Darfur’s more Islamic rebels will not appreciate the Judean comparison. But there has been an undeniable Pythonesque quality to recent efforts to negotiate with the splintered insurgent factions in Sudan’s strife-torn west.”
“A few weeks ago, Sudan’s Ministry of Information phoned round news agencies to say a JEM delegation was about to arrive at Khartoum airport.
The first questions on every reporter’s lips were “Do you mean the real JEM? The JEM led by Khalil Ibrahim? The JEM that attacked Khartoum in May 2008?”
The answer from the ministry official seemed pretty clear. “It is JEM. We can’t tell you who exactly is coming. We want it to be a big surprise.”
We rushed to the airport to be greeted by an anonymous man in a suit who announced he was the leader of a group called JEM South Kordofan. He dodged questions about his exact allegiance and headed for the exit.
The next morning, JEM’s spokesman phoned from Doha to deny having any involvement with the visiting mission. “These people are nobodies,” he said. “Nothing to do with JEM.” In another time and another context, he may well have added: “Splitters!””

(I should note that Andrew included lots of more-substantive stuff in between those quotes, because he had an actual point to make, which I’ve basically eviscerated in favor of skipping straight to the jokes. But you should not follow my bad example. Go read it.)

In Which the AP Issues a Clarification

Thanks to Enough’s David Sullivan, I just noticed this:

Clarification: Sudan-US-Darfur story
The Associated Press
Tuesday, October 27, 2009; 10:46 AM

CAIRO — In a story Sept. 11, The Associated Press quoted a representative of refugees in the Darfur region of Sudan as saying a U.S. envoy was not welcome in the region’s camps. The story should have said that the refugee representative identified himself only as Abu Sharati, an informal nickname he is known by, and that he spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he feared arrest by Sudan’s Arab-led government.

I’m glad to see it. Still no mention of him being a “self-appointed” representative, though…

The Problem With Abu Sharati: Not Just What, but Why

My Abu Sharati posts have been generating some great comments from journalists, who make the important point that the reporters who wrote the stories quoting “Sharati” weren’t acting in a vacuum.

SteveB pointed out the budgetary constraints that journalists are working under in the current economic climate:

“Newsrooms across the world are making sweeping cuts, particularly in foreign news. Bureaux are being closed down or pared back and nowhere more so than in Africa. McClatchy’s is getting rid of its only Africa bureau; the LA Times is cutting from two correspondents to one; most Brit papers only have one.
The news wires are also suffering. Reuters and AP have far less reporters around the continent now than they did three years ago. And far, far less than they did a decade ago.
The story of Abu Sharati is what happens when you have less journalists trying to do the same amount of work. Stories are rushed, editors don’t fact-check, mistakes are made.
I’m not excusing it. But it’s not as simple as saying these journalists failed to follow professional ethics.”

Rob Crilly noted that it’s not just the media whose structural limitations and expectations lead to stories like this. It’s also the advocacy community and the general public, and the narrative we’ve constructed around Darfur:

“[T]his is part of a general trend that often fails to question claims made by one side while scrutinising the other for lies and misleading statements. We know that ministers in Khartoum lie, but all too rarely do we recognise that the rebels also have PR and propaganda machines. In part it’s because reporters always seem to side with the rebels, apparently failing to ask awkward questions because the insurgents are fighting oppressive regimes (see The New York Times loopy coverage of the ONLF in Ethiopia, or the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia, for example). In Darfur, tories about Jem’s child soldiers or the SLA hijacking aid deliveries do not fit with the grand narrative of the conflict that George Clooney has invented for us. Abu Sharati’s claims, on the other hand, do fit so he gets quoted.”

Jina wonders:

“whether editors should do a little of that Googling, too. (And I’d love to hear what the foreign desks at said Big Three have to say about this…Big Three? ‘Ello?) Editors are busy, etc. etc. etc. Reporters are busy, and in Sudan, probably resource crunched, etc. etc. etc. I’d love to hear how smarter people than me would handle the division of labor that accuracy seems, at least in these remote + sensitive situations, requires.”

I’m so glad that they’ve decided to offer their thoughts. The fact that three different reporters from different organizations quoted Sharati over a period of one and a half years suggests that this is a structural issue as much as anything. I don’t have enough experience of working as a journalist to offer much of a perspective on that, so I’m really happy that people who know more than I do are chiming in here.

A full complement of Lucky Charms marshmallows to all of them!

Part III: Who Is Abu Sharati, and Does It Even Matter? (Yes. Yes, It Does.)

(This is Part III of the “Who Is Abu Sharati?” series. You might want to read Part I and Part II first.)

After weeks of research, I have been unable to find any information that makes me think Abu Sharati, supposedly the “representative” of Darfuri refugees and IDPs, exists -except to the extent that someone, who possesses neither that name nor that position, has been making statements to the press. And that whoever that person is, he is apparently awfully fond of the rebel leader Abdel Wahid Al-Nur.

I cannot think of any way to interpret the information I have been given that would allow me to conclude that no journalist has either (a) lied to me, (b) failed to follow the professional ethics that a journalist should, or (c) been duped by a fake “refugee representative” when any minor amount of digging or critical thought would have alerted them that there was more to the story. Frankly, the Occam’s Razor explanation here really seems like it’s (d): all of the above.

So, does it matter? Is it a big deal if a few journalists messed up, and accidentally published quotes from a mythical character, presenting them as if they represent a unified refugee position on the stories in question?

Yes. It matters.

First of all, it matters because if “Abu Sharati” -whoever he really is- does not have any legitimate authority to speak on behalf of Darfur’s displaced people, then presenting his views as if he does is basically just stealing. Being able to tell your own story matters, all the time, for everyone. Losing the power to do that matters too. That’s the reason why, if I were to start calling journalists and claiming that I speak on behalf of all attorneys in the United States, the ABA would have a legitimate beef with me. I have no right to claim that I speak for other people without their permission.

It would matter to me if someone stole my authority to tell my own story. And I’m not living in an IDP camp. I haven’t been forced to flee for my life. I haven’t lost my possessions or my freedom. I haven’t suffered the trauma of living through the hell that Darfur has been in the last few years. My life and future security are not riding on the outcome of anyone’s peace negotiations, unification efforts, or high-level talks. I do not need to worry that the wrong quote in the right newspaper could affect the outcome of those negotiations. And still, it would matter to me. How much must it matter to people who are in that situation?

The second reason why it matters is that presenting a political argument in the guise of a humanitarian sentiment is disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst. It is disingenuous because there is a political negotiation going on in Darfur right now, in which the IDPs have both a stake and a say. Gration is attempting to unify the various rebel factions and groups, and convince them to join the peace negotiations. This is, it seems to me, a good idea. As Bec Hamilton noted last week, there is no doubt that “fractured rebel groups only serve Khartoum’s interests,” or that “a unified structure would strengthen the rebels’ hand in negotiations.” However, some of the rebel factions’ leaders, including Abdel Wahid, oppose that unification process. This is hardly a neutral position: they are concerned with maintaining their own power, and the weight their wishes will carry in the negotiations. Publishing statements intended to undermine Gration can hardly, in that context, be seen as a neutral humanitarian matter.

Presenting the views of “Sharati” as the views of all Darfuri displaced people could also be quite dangerous. The SLA is engaged in a military conflict with the Khartoum government. The Khartoum government has, for years, shown a terrible willingness to support egregious attacks on civilians. The international community has rightly condemned those attacks as illegal and morally wrong, not only because of their brutality but also because they have been directed against civilians, who are protected under international law. Surely it is a bad idea, in that context, to attribute the arguments of one rebel faction to all civilian IDPs? Doesn’t it seem like the suggestion that there is no daylight between the interests of that faction and the interests of those civilians could be abused by certain people in Khartoum, and used as a justification for attacks on civilians? It wouldn’t be the first time such a pretext was used against the people in the camps: remember the expulsion of aid groups from the camps after the ICC issued a warrant for Bashir’s arrest, on the grounds that the aid workers had supposedly passed information to the ICC?

Thirdly, it matters that the media quoted “Sharati” misleadingly, because it allows any of us who trusted those stories to be, well, misled. The Save Darfur movement is massive, and has motivated a huge number of grass-roots activists to support the cause, many of whom have never been to Darfur and rely on the media for information about the humanitarian situation there. They are ordinary people, (except when they are Mia Farrow or Nat Hentoff), with regular jobs and lives, and they don’t have access to firsthand experience to guide them. So when the mainstream media quotes Sharati, they trust that he is who the articles say he is. That lends power not only to the views expressed in mainstream publications, but also to the things that he says in less reputable publications. So, if it’s not true that he can reasonably speak for the displaced, then the activists who listen to him have been duped, and that sucks for them. And if it turns out that the thing they’ve been duped into doing is supporting one particular dude’s particular political ambitions because those views are presented as a neutral humanitarian perspective, then I think that sucks even more.

And finally, what the hell is up with quoting someone under a pseudonym without any mention of that fact? Without so much as a “goes by the name of” or “asked to be described only as”? Seriously, what is that about?

If there is a reasonable explanation for all this that does not involve any of options (a) through (d), then I trust one of you clever people will let me know what it is. Until then, I am going to sleep. I always find sincere emotions just exhausting, and now I’m one sleepy blogger.

* Photos of Darfuri refugees who shouldn’t have their narratives stolen without permission from hdptcar’s photostream.

Part II: Who Is Abu Sharati, And Why Is the Mainstream Media Quoting Him Without a Good Answer to That Question?

When last you heard from me, I was all confused about who Abu Sharati -quoted hither and yon as a “spokesperson” for Darfur’s displaced- might actually be.

I hadn’t been able to find any non-journalists who believed he existed, and several of my contacts had suggested that he was the fictional creation of Abdel Wahid Al Nur, the rebel leader who heads one faction of the SLA.

The next step, I figured, was to contact the journalists who had written the articles. If there was a reasonable explanation for how a spokesperson for two and a half million people could also be invisible to the naked eye, I figured they would have it. They didn’t.

There were three bylined articles in the mainstream press quoting Sharati. The earliest, Dozens are Killed in Raid on Darfur Camp, was written by the New York Times’ Lydia Polgreen in August of last year. Next came Andrew Heavens’ March 19 2009 piece for Reuters, Aid Expulsions Spark Fears in Darfur Camps. The last was the AP story that first caught my attention on September 11, Darfur Refugee Says U.S. Envoy Unwelcome in Camps, by Sarah El Deeb for the Associated Press. I emailed all three bylined reporters, and asked if they could explain the mystery behind Mr. Sharati.

The Associated Press

The AP’s Sarah El Deeb responded that she had personally met with Sharati. According to her, he did not hold any official position that allowed him to speak for two and a half million other people. Rather, she said, he was a “self-proclaimed representative” who “travels in hiding from camp to camp” because he is wanted by the government. And then she dropped -in parentheses, after signing off- this minor piece of information:

“(By the way: Sharati is a Darfur word for a local representative. I think all this needs to be made clear in the next report. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.)”

In other words, she’d published a quote from “Abu Sharati,” stating that he was a refugee representative, when in fact he was neither (a) Abu Sharati, or (b) a refugee representative. Another journalist I spoke to, who has traveled to Darfur, confirmed that the name was a pseudonym. And according to Alex de Waal, the word “Sharati” is the plural of “Shartai,” which refers to a Fur administrative chief under the Sultanic system. So “Abu Sharati” would mean “chief of chiefs” within the Fur tradition, which I suppose could be translated as “representative.”

Personally, I find the use of a pseudonym, without any indication that it’s not the speaker’s real name, misleading. But you don’t need to take my word for it. This is what the AP’s Statement of News Values and Principles has to say on the matter:

Nothing in our news report – words, photos, graphics, sound or video – may be fabricated. We don’t use pseudonyms, composite characters or fictional names, ages, places or dates. “

I pressed El Deeb to explain why she would run quotes from “Sharati” without further explanation, given that he had neither then name nor the position attributed to him in her article, and appeared to espouse the positions of one particular SLA faction. She responded that it “became clear after speaking to him that he does represent the general sentiment of the population of IDPs, a lot of whom view Wahid as their representative.”

That was exciting news to me. I, too, would like to be a self-appointed representative! I feel that I represent the “general sentiment” of lawyers in America, and I’ll bet that “many” of them agree with my political views. (If you have any doubts, just ask my friend Kate -she’s also an American lawyer, and will totally confirm that this is all true.) So if I call the AP, they will be happy to publish quotes stating that every attorney in the country supports my political positions, and attribute them to “Princess Lawpants, the spokesperson for American lawyers,” right? There wouldn’t be anything irregular about that? Sweet. Political muscles, prepare to be flexed.

The New York Times

The Times’ Lydia Polgreen said that she had written the Times story from her base in Senegal, and had not actually travelled to Darfur to report it. She had never seen “Sharati,” or spoken to him. Rather, the quote had come via a Times stringer in Darfur named Izzadine Abdul Rasoul. (I should note that her location and the stringer’s contribution were both noted clearly in the original story.)

I contacted Izzadine directly, and asked my questions: who was Sharati? What was the source of his claimed “representative” authority? Was he even real?

Izzadine replied that he knew Sharati personally. His full name was “Husein Abu Sharati,” but sometimes he also went by “Abu Shartai.” (The singular form of the word, as noted above -I guess maybe he’s only plural on special occasions.) Izzadine claimed that Sharati was “heading the heads” of the 54 tribes who make up the displaced in Darfur, and was therefore “a representative of all IDPs and refugees” from those 54 tribes. However, Sharati couldn’t speak or meet with me, because “the refugees and IDPs would not allow it.”

Uh huh. So, this guy is supposedly the “head of the heads” of all of the tribes, but isn’t allowed to talk to me? Those are some awfully specific instructions:

“Congratulations, Mr. Sharati/Shartai/Other secret name! We’ve selected you as the holder of the highest office in Darfur, which comes with the right to make statements to the press on our behalf. You can even expressly espouse the interests of one particular rebel leader, should that strike your fancy.

The only thing you can’t do is talk to that annoying blogger Amanda. She is right out. We don’t like her face, and we heard a rumor she has cooties. Just saying.”

The “head of the tribes” description also struck me as implausible, even though that is the literal translation of “Abu Sharati.” First of all, the Times article in question actually only described Sharati as the representative of the 90,000 IDPs living in Kalma camp. While it’s not actually contradictory to be the representative of one camp and all the others too, it seems like an odd description to use. We don’t call Barack Obama “President of the people who live in Maine.”

More to the point, the assertion that Sharati held such an official, high position just didn’t jibe with anything else I had learned. I couldn’t find any other sources who had encountered a “chief of chiefs” in Darfur, or who believed such a person would be a secret figure without a public profile. Bec Hamilton, who’s currently writing a book about the Darfur crisis and just returned from a visit to the IDP camps, said that she encountered a number of IDP representatives, but none who were entitled to speak on behalf of all Darfur’s displaced. And Alex de Waal explained that if Abu Sharati was truly elected by all the sheikhs of the camps, then “he would be a well-known figure and not mysterious at all,” because “when visitors go to the camps or when a meeting is organized (e.g. to send a delegation to meet with Mbeki) these are the structures that are used, and they are all well-known and visible.” Nor did it seem possible to him that a “head of the heads of the tribes” would hide himself out of security concerns: “Even the most radical and outspoken camp leaders operate in an open fashion.” And, of course, Sarah El Deeb’s description of Sharati as a “self-appointed representative” was completely at odds with Izzadine’s version of the facts. Somebody was, at the very least, mistaken.

I asked Izzadine if he could explain the difference between his description of Sharati and Sarah El Deeb’s. Though skeptical, I was still open to the possibility that there could be a reasonable explanation. Perhaps there had been a misunderstanding because of a language barrier? Could “Sharati” be a term used by a number of people when speaking with the press, so that the different reporters had actually spoken with different people? Had Sarah simply misunderstood what Sharati had told her?

Izzadine’s explanation, however, was not one that I consider reasonable. He informed me that Sarah El Deeb must be “Janjaweed,” or at least a sympathizer of the Khartoum government. He cited no evidence for this other than her Arab name. It is my understanding that she is Egyptian, but to suggest that she must be a sympathizer with the IDPs’ persecutors on that basis alone is clearly ridiculous, and I don’t detect any pro-Khartoum bias in her other stories on Sudan. Needless to say, that response did not give me more confidence in Izzadine’s version of events. I don’t consider that kind of crazy talk helpful.

My correspondence with Izzadine continued for several weeks. I asked again if it would be possible for me to speak with Sharati, or for someone who I trust to meet with him. Eventually, he sent me a number for an intermediary who was supposed to link me to Sharati, but the number does not appear to be functional. I never got through.


Andrew Heavens was not willing to be quoted by name in this blog, so I haven’t included his responses here.

But because I am willing to be quoted by name in this blog, let me say for the record that I think it’s extremely lame for a reporter to publish a bylined article, but then to refuse to discuss it on the record when legitimate questions about the existence of a named source arise. I hope that Andrew will change his mind, and send a response that I can publish. Until then, I leave you with this quote from “The Essentials of Reuters Sourcing“:

Honesty in sourcing
Be honest in sourcing and never deliberately mislead the reader. Never cite sources in the plural when you have only one source. In a conflict, dispute or negotiation, always try to speak to all sides, and make clear which side your source is on, or whether the source is a third party.”

Yes. Please do that.

(Does any of this matter, anyway? I think yes. To find out why, read Part III: Who is Abu Sharati, and Does it Really Matter?)

* Photo of Darfuri Refugees from hdptcar’s photostream.